At the Movies with Hanover Matz 1917
If you have followed any of the buzz around the latest project from Sam Mendes, director of the last two Bond films Skyfall and the lesser well received Spectre, you’ve probably heard that 1917 has been ambitiously constructed to appear as one continuous shot. The long take, real or illusionary, is not a revolutionary technique, going at least as far back as Hitchcock’s days, but its employment in 1917, alongside acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camera work, culminates in a phenomenal technical display of filmmaking. However, by the end of the film I left feeling that 1917 could have used a little less technique and a little more heart to drive its
1917 follows the mission of two young British soldiers on the Western front of World War I. They are tasked with carrying a message across the dangerous no man’s land to stop a British battalion from attacking the German lines. The German retreat is a feint to lure the British into a trap, and if the message does not reach the front in time, 1,600 soldiers will lose their lives, among them the brother of one of our protagonists. What follows is a harrowing journey through corpse-riddled craters, booby trapped trenches, burned out townships, and vicious barbed wire as our heroes bravely risk their lives for their comrades in arms, the camera tracking their every move as if on invisible rails. The one-shot gimmick serves its purpose well from the get-go: immediately we are immersed in the struggles of Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield, feeling
as if we are right alongside them skirting danger and dodging bullets. While this generates visceral tension, as the film progresses it starts to feel more like an amusement park ride than an empathetic examination of war time conditions. We are beside Blake and Schofield, but we barely get to know them as human beings; there’s no time for pauses or cuts or extended dialogue, just moving from one event to the next. And the more the single shot is drawn out, the less we feel as if the characters are driving the plot rather than being carried forward by the narrative’s predetermined momentum, passengers, like us, on a visually impressive but emotionally sterile journey.
The exceptions to this rule are the many famous British thespians injected at various points throughout the film. The main characters, Blake and Schofield, were deliberately selected as relatively unknown actors (Dean-Charles Chapman and George Mackay, respectively) to represent the many anonymous youths that went off to fight for their country in the Great War, never to return. However, 1917 is chock full of recognizable actors filling in the parts of superior officers: Colin Firth is the general who assigns the boys their mission, Andrew Scott plays a burnt out lieutenant on the front line, Mark Strong a consoling captain, and Benedict Cumberbatch the colonel leading the doomed battalion they must reach. Many of these characters deliver some of the best moments of the film, and the age and esteem of these actors contrasted with the youthfulness of Chapman and Mackay serves to underscore the cruel reality that the members of the aristocracy orchestrating the war were not the ones storming the hellish
trenches. 1917 spends little time exploring these themes, though, expending more on the hazardous obstacles strewn throughout the bombed-out fields. It’s riveting action, but makes the movie feel more like an Indiana Jones adventure than a contemplative look at the demons of war.
1917 ultimately reminded me of what I loved and hated about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which depicted the evacuation of British soldiers from France during World War II. Both films are technically skillful and visually stunning, but both lacked substantial character development to connect the viewer with the human conflict depicted on screen. Dunkirk, like 1917, was also devoid of exposition to convey the historical context, although this was a deliberate creative choice by Nolan as he was more interested in depicting a survival film than a traditional war film. I am not certain these flaws in 1917 were as intentional on Mendes’ part, and it’s curious that the most significant human connection arrives at the conclusion of the film, where there is a dedication to Mendes’ grandfather who served in World War I. I did not hate 1917 by any means; it’s certainly a film that checks all my personal boxes for entertainment. However, I was left far more choked up by Peter Jackson’s stunning They Shall Not Grow Old than I was by this Great War outing.
A friend of mine disagreed with my opinion of 1917, arguing it purposefully plays out less like the traditional narrative of a novel and more like the flowing cadence of a poem, an ode to all the youth who struggled through the brutal conflict that defined the early 20 th century. Whatever shortcomings the film may have, the climax of 1917 admittedly sent chills down my spine. It is both a testament to the bravery of those who served, and a modern cinematic warning of just how not so long-ago men were willing to subject each other to senseless brutality in the name of king and country.